Anger and Sadness and Roadtrips

English: United States Auto trail sign for the...

English: United States Auto trail sign for the National Park-to-Park Highway. The sign design was taken from actual Association logos designed prior to 1923. The Association has long ceased to exist. The sign was used to mark the automobile trail. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are so many different ways to approach grief and mourning. Some say there are 5 stages, others 7. One place mentioned 10. None of them fit exactly, but I’m not going through a regular breakup or normal grief.

I think I’m somewhere around the angry and/or sad stage. I’m out of denial. I’ve been slowly moving closer towards acceptance. I really feel like it, anyway. There are things I do to remind myself how much better it will be when I’m finished with my car and thoughts of driving. I tell myself it will be easier. My boyfriend and I’ve worked out that he’ll buy my car and sell his, so my car will still be close to me.

But then I go and watch something called Paving the Way: The National Park-to-Park Highway and it’s like all my good feelings go out the window – I’m angry and sad all over again.

Park-to-Park Highway

The show was a two-part series on PBS from 2009, but it aired again last night when I was itching for something to watch after my busy day.

Paving the Way details the beginning of the motor age in the US around the 1910s. The idea was begun to link up the National Parks of the west by one circular highway. The roads of that time were more like the NH back-roads of my youth – badly kept, mostly dirt. It was before the days of gas stations, fast food, or motels – people carried everything with them, like motorized wagon trains.

The first group of travelers of the Highway took two and a half months to make the loop in 1920. They started in Denver with Rocky Mtn, up through Yellowstone and Glacier, out to WA for Mt Ranier, south through OR and CA, stopping in Crater Lake, Lassen Volcano, Yosemite, General Grant and Sequoia. Then back east for Zion, Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde. And turning north again, they finished in Denver.

One of the historians interviewed commented that people in that era felt like prisoners of the railroads and their timetables. Someone else pointed out that in a car you had the freedom to go where you wanted. So the great west was an unexplored terrain, doubly desirable in post-WWI era when Europe was rebuilding.

Cars & roads

This is some of what I learned:

  • at that time, an average train ticket to visit the parks the same way would have cost 1/3 of the average annual salary of most Americans
  • in 1900 only 8,000 cars were registered in the US – a number that exploded by twenty years later
  • even in 1920, most roads weren’t really good for driving being most were still dirt and built for wagons
  • AAA was already in existence
  • many auto clubs like AAA were for hobbyists – as auto interest was seen as a hobby
  • the auto clubs were responsible for much of the road signage

Cars for Conservation

One of the most interesting moments in the program came when discussing the building of the roads through the parks. In some instances, they were built to give people the grand views of scenery. In some instances, they cut through things and destroyed some, but on the other hand the roads could be seen as a tool of conservation. Because people never get out of their cars, the only land touched was that of the roads. People didn’t get out to trample around the land, they only observed it from the car, limiting destruction.

I traveled across country twice on my own, twice with my family. It’s true that I rarely got out except at overlooks or to stretch legs. And when I went to Australia, I had the same experience. If I hadn’t been able to connect with another traveler with a car, I wouldn’t have seen much of that continent, either. We spent hours driving, drove more through the park and landscapes, and only stopped for short walks.

Parks Without Cars?

When the auto first came into the American landscape, only the wealthy could afford it. But like current technologies, the price came down to where more could buy it and it became commonplace. Along with falling price the known corruption of the railroads of the time helped put the allure of the automobile on a shortcut to Americans’ hearts. But now, I don’t feel like I have the same freedom as I’ve been sold on all my life. Without a car, it’s nearly impossible to get to these things.

I remember this feeling when I got to Australia and realized how little I would see without a car. No trains or bus services would get me anywhere scenic. Bus tours were quick and by timetables and limited. I needed a car in Australia to see anything, and now, I realize, the same goes for the US. In this century, the car is the everyman transportation; the train is still expensive, and there are fewer options to get anywhere with it.

Parks Highway

Parks Highway (Photo credit: Travis S.)

End of the Road Trip

At the end of the program last night, the various people being interviewed were asked about road-trips and to offer a phrase or a single word to define how they felt about them. The American connection to the automobile was further solidified with phrases like opportunity, creativity, non-conformist, freedom, representative of life’s journey-the discovery, and exploration of the outside and inside.

Hearing this, recalling my own relationship with cars and road trips, I feel like a little piece of me faded out, like a candle being snuffed from lack of oxygen, like the feeling you have when someone you love is gone.

I haven’t been to more than a handful of the parks. And now unless someone else drives me, I won’t see any more. It makes me think that I’ve been lucky to see any of them at all. And I realize how unfair it is that without a car, I can’t be part of the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’. My days of American Freedom, of road trips with me behind the wheel have ended.

Early in the relationship

When I and my friends turned 16 in rural New Hampshire, we couldn’t wait to get our own cars. I purchased a used Ford after a summer of working to earn $1500 to pay for it. It was six months after my birthday. Most of my friends purchased their own cars in roughly the same time frame. Our cars were symbolic of who we were, from the music on the radio or the tapes we played, to the objects hanging from our rearview mirrors. We stopped taking the school buses or relying on our parents to drive us around. We had freedom.

Literary Digest interview with Henry Ford

Literary Digest interview with Henry Ford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Babysitting jobs got easier since I could get there myself. If I felt like driving out to the store or the library or meet someone at the café the next town over, I suddenly could. It was a movement into adulthood, complete with gas purchases, oil changes, worries about weather and digging out from snow.

This is the world I grew up in. The car was the only way to get around. I lived two miles from my school with some major hills between. There was no other way to get downtown, where we had a single blinking light, library, pizza shop, and a few banks. The lake was further. And any fresh food or clothes shopping was impossible without a car unless you planned for a daylong walk, which would have been a ridiculous idea. Most of the way lacked any sidewalks and meant walking along some roads with posted speed limits of 55mph and up.

I never questioned any of this. I loved it.

Breaking up is hard

When I was a little girl, I had a toy racetrack. I would set it up in the living room and race the cars over their plastic and electrified oval. I loved it. Occasionally the electric track would give me a jolting shock that turned me away from it for a little while. But I always went back.

I drove my Matchbox cars and trucks and tractors over the windowsills and tables and the floor. I was pretty pissed off when my mother up and gave them to my younger brother several years later – maybe because he was a boy. I only had dolls left. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my dolls as well, but those awesome cars were mine and my brother had no right to them.

Growing up in rural NH it’s hard not to fall in love with the automobile. It is the only mode of transportation

Muddy dirt road during Mud Season

Muddy dirt road during Mud Season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– even if you do get snowed in during storms, or require chains to get to town, or drive over dirt roads that might wash out in the spring or turn into sticky pits and mires during mud season.

When I was sixteen I finally got my own car. I’d saved up for it and although it wasn’t flashy, I was glad to be driving. The feeling has faded somewhat in the past few years. But I still love my car. I’ve traveled across two countries by automobile. I’ve owned six myself, one after another, until now.

So now I feel like I’m ending a relationship. I’ve decided to sell my car. And although I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, it’s not easy. Health issues mean I have to stop driving, although unlike my mother with her deteriorating eyes and bad knees, I’m only 35 and otherwise mobile. But an ultimatum has never sounded so harsh. Not knowing when I can drive again, possibly ever, has taken my relationship with automobiles from a friendly growing apart to a feeling of an ugly breakup.

I feel like a bitter Bogart in Casablanca. But instead of an Ingrid Bergman, I’m enamored with an oily, mechanical, cold set of metal, nuts, bolts, hoses, and a lot of fluids.  So I’m going to try writing to go through the motions and record the memories. But I’m also going to try to see where I’m going from here. What does it mean to live in America without a car? What are the other options? How easy is it to get around?